Do you sometimes feel like your paintings look a little bit flat?
Here are 3 simple things you can do to add more depth…
1- Grey haze
As things get further away from us, they get greyer. This is because the atmosphere gets in the way. Mostly because of little droplets of water, it gives that blueish grey tinge to everything in the distance. In cityscapes, pollution adds more interference and the haze becomes more yellow, or green, or sometimes even brown.
The obvious application of this principle is in landscape painting. But it also works for subjects that are much closer. In this painting of the tree peony Paeonia ‘Sandrine’, I added a blue-grey wash on the foliage in the background, to render the layering of all the leaves and adding depth to the composition. Although in reality the background foliage is not far enough to suffer the effects of atmospheric haze, the additional blue-grey wash tricks the brain into seeing distance where there is only a flat sheet of watercolour paper.
The idea that light colours come forward and dark colours recede is a bit of a myth. In reality, it is the contrast between light and dark that makes the difference.
In this oil painting, you can see that the darkest tree is the one that comes forward.
In the foreground, light colours are very light and dark colours very dark. The contrast between the two is strong. In the distance, the darkest blacks become dark greys and the lightest whites become pale grey. The further away you go, the smaller the amplitude between the two, until everything merges into the mid-tones. Again, this applies to paintings depicting subjects much closer, such as botanical art or still life.
When objects are close to you, you can see all the details. When they are far away, the details get lost. In this painting of the Isle of Wight seen from Highcliff Castle, the gorse in the foreground is very detailed while the island landscape is just a coloured granulating wash.
Applying this to close-up subjects, the petals in the foreground of this Hydrangea show all the little veins. The petals in the back of the flower head are painted with soft wet-in-wet washes with no sharp details.
This painting of a mermaid by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann shows good examples of the three principles above:
- Grey haze: the rocks in the distance are painted in shades of grey, with none of the greens, blues and golds of the foreground
- Contrast: the contrasts on the mermaid are strong, with glowing sun skin and dark shadows, but the rocks in the distance are in the mid-tones
- Details: you can see every little drop of water on the mermaid’s skin and the seaweeds, every silvery fishscale and dark eyelash but the rocks in the distance are blurred and painted with wider brushstrokes
I also made a video about this, which you can watch here:
Or you can click here to go to my YouTube channel to watch this video and many more.
I hope that you enjoyed gazing at the beautiful mermaid with the wild seaweed hair and that these three tips will help you in adding depth to your paintings.